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Workers Complain to OSHA About Employer Coronavirus Policies

March 5, 2020, 1:51 PM

Complaints about whether companies are adequately protecting workers from the coronavirus have prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to contact about 20 employers.

In each case, OSHA has sent the employer a letter outlining the complaint’s concerns and asking what preventative measures the company is taking, Patrick Kapust, OSHA’s deputy director of enforcement, said Wednesday.

So far, none of the complaints have led to an OSHA inspection, Kapust told attorneys at the American Bar Association’s midwinter conference in Palm Springs, Calif., for lawyers involved in OSHA and mine safety practices.

OSHA doesn’t have a specific rule for how employers are expected to protect workers from airborne diseases. Instead, the agency advises employers to follow guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a life-threatening case, OSHA could cite an employer for not adhering to CDC recommendations.

Employer Concerns

Jonathan Snare, a partner with Morgan Lewis LLP in Washington, said in one OSHA case involving a client, about 200 calls were made to a local OSHA office by people who thought they could be exposed to the coronavirus because a worker had returned from a trip to Asia.

One common concern attorneys at the conference said they’re hearing from clients is that workers want employers to take preventative steps that aren’t necessarily in line with CDC recommendations.

For example, an employee might object to sitting near a co-worker who recently returned from an overseas trip out of concern the worker could be infected with the coronavirus, even after the worker had gone weeks without showing symptoms.

Employers also are trying to figure out how to deal with workers’ requests to wear N95 respirators even though the employer doesn’t require the masks and doesn’t believe there’s a health hazard the masks are effective at preventing, said attorney Tressi Cordaro, a principal with Jackson Lewis PC’s Washington office.

According to OSHA regulations, in cases of voluntary respirator use, workers can sign an OSHA form, Appendix D of the Respiratory Protection Standard, stating the employee will follow the manufacturer’s directions for using the respirator.

OSHA also expects the employer to ensure that the respirator is cleaned regularly and doesn’t pose a health hazard.

Another potential issue, attorneys at the meeting said, is how to handle an employee’s request to work from home or not travel.

Employers are concerned they could face an OSHA investigation if they deny an employee’s request to stay home and later dismiss the worker for refusing to come to work or make a business trip.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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